Innovate or Imitate?

by Robert Pondiscio
December 6th, 2011

If education is a test, America might want to spend a little more time copying the answers the other countries are writing down on their papers.

Writing in at The Atlantic, Marc Tucker notes that despite spending “more per student on K-12 education than any other nation except Luxembourg” America continues to lag not just developed nations like Japan, Finland, Canada, “but developing countries and mega-cities such as South Korea, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.”

“You would think that, being far behind our competitors, we would be looking hard at how they are managing to outperform us. But many policymakers, business leaders, educators and advocates are not interested. Instead, they are confidently barreling down a path of American exceptionalism, insisting that America is so different from these other nations that we are better off embracing unique, unproven solutions that our foreign competitors find bizarre.”

Tucker’s list of “unproven solutions” includes charter schools, private school vouchers, entrepreneurial innovations, grade-by-grade testing, diminished teachers’ unions, and basing teachers’ pay on how their students do on standardized tests. These strategies are “nowhere to be found in the arsenal of strategies used by the top-performing nations,” he writes. “And almost everything these countries are doing to redesign their education systems, we’re not doing,” notes Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy.

“They develop world-class academic standards for their students, a curriculum to match the standards, and high-quality exams and instructional materials based on that curriculum. In the U.S., most states have recently adopted Common Core State Standards in English and math, which is a good start. But we still have a long way to go to build a coherent, powerful instructional system that all teachers can use throughout the whole curriculum.”

The top performers also raise entry standards for the teaching profession and insist that all teachers have in-depth knowledge of the subjects they will teach” and generally make teaching a high-status profession.

“The result is a virtuous cycle: teaching ranks as one of the most attractive professions, which means no teacher shortages and no need to waive high licensing standards. That translates into top-notch teaching forces and the world’s highest student achievement. All of this makes the teaching profession even more attractive, leading to higher salaries, even greater prestige, and even more professional autonomy. The end results are even better teachers and even higher student performance.”

The cycle in the U.S., Tucker notes, is the opposite of virtuous.  Teaching is a low-status profession, lacking in prestige and colleges of education set a low bar for admissions.  Salaries are low.  Teachers also have weak knowledge of their assigned subjects “and increasingly, they’re allowed to become teachers after only weeks of training,” he notes. “When we are short on teachers, we waive our already-low standards, something the high-performing countries would never dream of doing.”

The inevitable result is ever lower student achievement, which drives more attacks on teaching and stricter accountability, which Tucker wisely observes, makes it “even less likely that our best and brightest will become teachers.”

But hey, we can innovate and disrupt with the best of them!

The problem, Tucker concludes, is not a lack of innovation but a simple lack of what successful countries have: “a coherent, well-designed state systems of education that would allow us to scale up our many pockets of innovation and deliver a high-quality education to all our students.”


  1. That “nowhere to be found” line is rather an exaggeration, at least as to school choice. The Netherlands and Belgium do well on PISA, for example, and they have not just an occasional voucher program but vouchers for everybody in the country.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — December 7, 2011 @ 9:15 am

  2. Good point, Stuart. I tend to support vouchers and choice, not because they have been especially successful in raising the quality of schools, but merely because I see choice as an intrinsic good (I want it for myself and my child, therefore I can’t reasonably deny it to others). My disappointment with choice is that it has not resulted in sufficient variety. I described this in a talk I gave at the University o Arkansas just about a year ago. The “innovations” spurred by choice are purely mechanical, governance structures, data and whatnot. Ideas about teaching and learning end up staying the same. The result is what I called “a second flavor of bad.”

    If we had what Tucker, I think correctly views as “a coherent, well-designed state systems of education” and “world-class academic standards…a curriculum to match the standards, and high-quality exams and instructional materials based on that curriculum” then innovation around delivery mechanisms would make all the sense in the world. Our present fixation on structural changes pretty much assumes that what teachers teach and what children learn is settled. All that’s left is to improve delivery. This is, of course, nowhere close to correct.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 7, 2011 @ 9:26 am

  3. A comment–rather than a nitpick–on your fine analysis of an equally terrific piece by Marc Tucker. You’re correct, Robert–the money quote is in the last paragraph. What’s truly “nowhere to be found” is that coherent system, based on a national consensus of what we’re aiming for in our public schools. That’s what other nations have, and we don’t.

    You’re also correct in noting that the lack of such systemic principles and goals is predicated on our fondness for “innovation” and “disruption”–not to mention standardization, competition and making money rather than building an equitable common system.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — December 7, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

  4. Sweden is another high-performing European country that has a robust school choice program including vouchers. Many Canadian provinces also offer school choice. Alberta, for example, offers students the chance to attend private, charter, and Catholic schools.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — December 7, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

  5. It sounds as if one of Tucker’s primary contentions is the old chicken/egg dilemma. Which is the US to do first, start paying great salaries to teachers or hiring only top college graduates into our teaching ranks? Local school boards would be hard pressed (especially in this economy) to even consider paying teachers high fa-looting salaries. In the same breath, how are local districts ever going to be able to hire only top notch students when our teacher colleges and schools of education are loaded with the mediocre variety?

    Nothing but the highest respect for Marc Tucker and his credentials but when he opines, “The top-performing nations have followed paths that are remarkably similar and straightforward. Most start by putting more money behind their hardest-to-educate students than those who are easier to educate. In the U.S., we do the opposite,” Houston, I have a problem. The US spends an exorbitant amount of money on special needs students, in some instances two to three times more than on regular ed kids. Our special needs students deserve everything we can give them, and more, but it’s been my experience, they get it. I don’t know how can Marc Tucker make such an assertion?

    I’m also a strong believer that a country like Finland, with a five million plus population that is as homogenous as most in the world, can offer the US strategies/solutions to our country of 300 plus, million with perhaps the most heterogeneous population on the planet? It’s as apples and oranges as it can get. That doesn’t even factor in the poverty comparison between the two countries.

    And now that we have adopted the Common Core Standards in 45 of 50 states plus the District of Columbia (with common assessments to follow) we’re at least on the right track towards equity. Delivery, for me, would be an enormous next step in this country, one we should get to asap, because our current system of delivery is borderline deplorable.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 7, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

  6. Correction:

    Paragraph 3, line 2; “…,CANNOT offer the US much in the way of strategies/solutions…”

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 7, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

  7. Well, if Finland can’t offer a model, why can Belgium the Netherlands and Shanghai (which I also see mentioned a lot). Aren’t they also rather small and homogeneous? (Shanghai isn’t even a country).

    From what I understand most countries do offer a choice (that is, will subsidize non-state schools, including religious schools), as long as the schools meet certain standards, but the citizenry prefers the state schools, which are better.

    Comment by Harold — December 7, 2011 @ 6:26 pm

  8. The salary issue is interesting. The United States spends more per pupil every year than the vast majority of other industrialized countries (including Finland). Only Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, and Sweden spend more per pupil than we do. See

    So clearly there’s plenty of money to pay teachers. If teachers’ salaries here are nonetheless “low,” that can only mean one of two things: 1) We hire more teachers per pupil than other countries do; or 2) We waste more money on administration than other countries do.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — December 8, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

  9. Paul, why do you think there are so many “special needs” kids in the US, compared to other countries? Are those learning disabilities due to dyslexia or dysteachia? I think it goes back to what Robert says: we need a coherent, challenging curriculum for all. No more invented spelling, no more enforcing maladaptive guessing strategies for reading (aka “three cueing systems”), no more “let’s just watch them as they naturally develop at their own snail’s pace because we refuse to change the way we teach.”

    Comment by alamo — December 8, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

  10. Rob:

    If we had what Tucker, I think correctly views as “a coherent, well-designed state systems of education” and “world-class academic standards…a curriculum to match the standards, and high-quality exams and instructional materials based on that curriculum” then innovation around delivery mechanisms would make all the sense in the world.

    Diane Ravitch, back in a saner day, wrote a whole book that basically explained why that’s impossible here (“The Language Police”). We’re too democratic, with too many interest groups that end up watering things down.

    One of the values of choice is that it allows at least some people to opt into, say, a Core Knowledge school, thus furthering what you yourself see as a more important goal.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — December 8, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

  11. Living in DC with one of the more significant testing gaps for race, I think your Alamo misses one of the causes of “special needs” kids in the U.S. and that is their start. Most of these countries provide better starts from pre-natal care, food quality, high quality child-care. They arso are exposed to more intense poverty and violence. While I think high quality, content rich curriculm is critical, the challenges at the very beginning just can’t be dismissed. I encountered this first hand when I was doing a program on the election in my daughter’s high poverty school on the election. When I asked kids what they would ask for from an candidate one child said that people would not kill people like my uncle and several others for a place to play (closest playground for these kids was over a mile away and that included the school). These kids did not even have sidwalks they could play jump rope on. It is just a lot more complex when you get to the real kid level.

    Comment by DC Parent — December 8, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

  12. Alamo,

    Not sure I said, “We have so many “special needs” kids in the US, compared to other countries.” Revisiting my post I stated, “The US spends an exorbitant amount of money on special needs students, in some instances two to three times more than on regular ed kids.” I agree with some of your latter points.

    Also agree with DC Parent’s point on a possible reason for sped students in the US; their start, or lack thereof.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 8, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

  13. Actually, yes, the US does have a much higher rate of students who are labeled as learning disabled. Diane McGuinness has written about this.

    As far as poverty in the US being the cause of learning disabilities,that does not explain why poor US students in schools with a good curriculum have very few LD labeled kids. See the book IT’S BEING DONE for a description of schools with poor kids and high achievement.

    Comment by alamo — December 9, 2011 @ 7:48 am

  14. Sorry, I think I missed it.

    Remind me: which nation has a good track record with racial minorities from single parent homes, where the parent has low income, low social capital, and low reading skills?

    Comment by MG — December 9, 2011 @ 9:58 am

  15. Note: this Daily News article by Sol Stern about the recent disappointing NAEP results mentions E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Program as a possible solution (at end of article:

    But the solution to the city’s education problems is not simply promising to align New York’s standards to emerging national ones. The real answer, at least for the city’s awful reading scores, is more likely to be found in a group of 10 elementary schools participating in a pilot program testing the efficacy of the Core Knowledge reading program pioneered by the scholar and cognitive scientist E.D. Hirsch.

    Over a three-year period, the students in the schools using the Hirsch program outperformed their peers from a control group by a huge margin on K-2 reading tests. Amazingly, though the DOE conducted the Core Knowledge reading study, it has not moved to spread this success to other schools.

    Now that’s an example of a “dysfunctional” and “sclerotic” education system.

    Comment by Harold — December 9, 2011 @ 1:59 pm

  16. “Remind me: which nation has a good track record with racial minorities from single parent homes, where the parent has low income, low social capital, and low reading skills?”

    I think E.D. Hirsch and Chall who wrote that poor, African immigrant kids in France who attended preschools with challenging curricula have closed the achievement gap, in relation to their native-born, middle class counterparts.

    Similarly, Karin Chenowith writes that poor, minority kids who attend excellent schools (within their own neighborhood, with majority Black, Latino, low-income kids) have also achieved at levels that equal or exceed those of white, middle & upper class kids in their states.

    Comment by alamo — December 10, 2011 @ 1:54 am

  17. “Amazingly, though the DOE conducted the Core Knowledge reading study, it has not moved to spread this success to other schools.”

    This sounds more than borderline suspicious. How could the NYDOE possibly ignore the success in these schools? I’d think teachers from the non-CK schools would even have to question the state’s non-action. Has the DOE at least acknowledged the CK success? If so, what’s the delay in moving all schools in this direction?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 10, 2011 @ 8:07 am

  18. Crimson wife, vouchers and charter schools are not common in high performing nations. Sweden actually does a little worse than the US on literacy.

    If you want to support putting tax dollars into school choice programs, it’s better to follow Robert’s lead and do so for philosophical reasons.

    Comment by Ray — December 10, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

  19. It is amazing. One reason is that these results are very preliminary and K-2 isn’t very significant — in terms of tests. Many high performing countries don’t start formal reading lessons at all until second grade and their kids do just fine. The real question is whether these improvements translate to older groups and bigger scales. But (since I believe in content-based learning) I would be willing to give it a chance. One thing I noticed is that many modern teachers are sort of brain-washed against anything resembling a classical curriculum, which they regard as both “elistist” (personally excluding them) and punitive. I myself think the Hirsch curriculum might need modification to make sure it is developmentally appropriate.

    Comment by Harold — December 10, 2011 @ 6:43 pm

  20. addendum: and, it is important to communicate to teachers, parents, and the public that whatever curriculum is used is not exclusionary but is meaningful and offers lasting advantages to to all segments of society and is not incompatible with the aspirations of progress and modernity. That is to say, the goal should be to win cooperation rather than trying to impose reforms from above.

    Comment by Harold — December 10, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

  21. Harold I think one of the challenges of the more classical curriculum is that most teachers under the age of 40 have not experienced it themselves so they don’t have the level of content knowledge themselves. The challenge in my mind is the knowledge loss over generations is cumulative.

    Comment by DC Parent — December 10, 2011 @ 11:15 pm

  22. When he was in fifth or sixth grade, I suggested my son read and write a book report on a “landmark” series book about the boyhood of Cicero. He wrote the report and his teacher reacted with tremendous hostility — “Why did you choose this book? Etc. Etc. He was upset and furious and seemed to take it as a personal criticism. This was in the ’80s. I had always loved books like this as a child, because my family lived in Rome for three years and what we learned in third grade in my English-run school was stories from Ancient Greek history, which I loved. I don’t get it. I am hoping this too shall pass, but it seems a shame. Why should children now be learning about every culture but the Greek and Roman, which is the basis for all our poetry, laws, and much else? It’s not as if other cultures didn’t have slavery, human sacrifice, and class stratification. I was very happy when I discovered the Waldorf method of education which had many points in common with the way we were taught.

    On the other hand I don’t like the reactionary ideology of many so-called traditionalists who want to turn back the clock and teach in a punitive manner. They are their own worst enemies, as far as I am concerned.

    Comment by Harold — December 11, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

  23. Correction: I think my son may have been in middle school — the 90s, when this incident occurred. Many people seemed to have felt at the time that we had entered a new era, in which all the learning of the past could safely be discarded. It used to upset me, but now I am used to it.

    I always think of the Anti-Fascist historian and teacher Gaetano Salvemini, from Apulia, as described by Iris Origo, who calls him “A man who worked incessantly for school reform–for a school which would give his pupils a key to open locks, a compass to direct them across a sea of facts, to guard them against improbable or false assertions, and to teach them to think for themselves. In his essay on culture he wrote: ‘God said to man, You shall earn your bread by the sweat of your brow, culture is the bread of the soul. One must work, suffer, and give thing up to be worthy of conquering it, and capable of retaining it.’”

    She also tells us that according to the great scholar Eugenio Garin, “When in his essay about the meaning of culture, [Salvemini] ended it with the word ‘justice,’ he was expressing what he considered the social duty . . . to exercise the right of criticism without which a man ceases to be human . . . This is the justice without which it is unbearable for men to live together.”

    Of course Salvemini, who came from a not-very-educated family of Southern Italian fishermen, still had the privilege of learning Latin at an early age at the knee of his uncle, a priest. (See Iris Origo, “A Need to Testify” 1984

    Comment by Harold — December 11, 2011 @ 8:30 pm

  24. Why don’t we look back- way back at this country’s track record in educational reform! Not very impressive, yet we keep making the same mistakes over and over again! Today, even greater emphasis has been drawn to test scores, teacher evaluation, politics in education, private sectoring, and the overall demoralization of teacher character. We are counting on our “leaders” to learn and understand the core values of an effective educational system, but it is way too late for that. We are the proof! It is up to us to make a difference in our own little worlds by teaching others the importance of lifelong, “life-touching” learning.

    Comment by Lucy — January 18, 2012 @ 4:06 pm

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